Thank God, the joke is finally over. On Sunday, the Tribeca Film Festival premiered Francophrenia (Or Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is), actor/artist/writer/student/whatever James Franco’s look at his stint on General Hospital, as seen through a prism of navel-gazing and self-conscious artiness. It’s a bad film, pretentious and irritating, mistaking preening for candor and self-indulgence for insight. But it’s more than that. Arriving when it does — a good year-plus after our Franco saturation point — it’s like looking at a shameful old yearbook, where you can’t believe that you used to do your hair like that, or wear that sweater-vest. We used to care about this?
The film was shot entirely on the evening of June 24, 2010, as Franco made the final episode of his General Hospital arc at a staged event at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “The episode was never completed,” the opening crawl insists, ominously. (That’s false, by the way.) On the show, he was playing a deranged artist named “Franco” (presumably so he could adopt the habit, in interviews, of referring to himself in the third person); the episode concerned the opening of “Franco”’s big art show, which was happening simultaneously with a kidnapping or something back at the GH. Roughly the first half of the film is comprised of Franco going to the shoot, getting into hair and makeup, having awkward conversations with fans (“I love your signature!”), and wandering around in his tux. It’s all walking and waiting; the camera holds on Franco’s face, often in dead silence, looking intense. It’s a voyeur’s dream — the movie basically consists of the opportunity to stare at a celebrity for 78 minutes.
In choosing to watch it — and in choosing to see it to completion — Francophrenia basically forces us to confront the schism that has hovered around Franco for the past couple of years, through his art shows, his copious acting and directing work, his pursuit of multiple graduate degrees, and the stunt turn on a daytime drama. On one hand, it was rather delightful that he chose to do something interesting with his celebrity. On the other, it’s irritating that he did such an obvious, what-is-celebrity-anyway meta thing with it. When the profiles and news items about his busy dance card began to appear, around 2010 or so, it was all so intriguing — what was he doing? Why was he doing it? What did it all mean? And the actor played along, with his good-natured but enigmatic interviews, dropping names and books and indicating some sort of master plan, or at least an intellect at work.
But the more of his “art” we saw, the more of his writing we read, and the more stunts he pulled (2011 Oscars, anyone?), the more it became clear that there was no there there. He’s just screwing around, and Francophrenia confirms it. The big ideas on display are shockingly shallow. Early on, we get a lingering close-up of the actor staring at himself in the makeup mirror, furrowing his brow, making “evil” faces. But he doesn’t make those faces just for the soap cameras — he’ll make them throughout the film, for the documentary cameras. It’s all an act, GET IT? As he makes those faces, the frame widens, to reveal the camera operator himself in the mirror. Cut to the scores of fans outside, each of them with their cameras poised to photograph him. He’s always on camera, GET IT? So where does reality end and art begin, eh? Heavy, man. Pass the bong.
The silliness of the entire enterprise is revealed in the second half, in which the endless Franco-waiting-and-sitting-on-set footage is supplemented by an inane inner monologue voice-over — which is done (wait for it) with someone else’s voice. INSANE, RIGHT? That voice is provided by the film’s co-director, Ian Olds (who directed the very fine documentary Fixer and should know better). “What’s the scene?” asks voice-over Franco. “What are we shooting. What’s the scene?” He whispers profundities, punctured by the occasional actual joke (“I went to grad school for a reason, people”), but most of the “humor” is provided by Olds’s attempts to riff along to the action, MST3K-style. It ends up lowering the film to the level of a cheap joke on the audience, Franco and his friends jeering at his own home movies and expecting us to laugh along.
Although most of the inner monologue is played for laughs, the filmmakers clearly think that the occasional serious line is going to sucker-punch us with its sudden bursts of insight. No dice. “I’m all alone in this machine” isn’t recondite, it’s hogwash. “I made this machine and all the parts are moving perfectly,” “Franco” opines. “I’m the foreman of the factory.” This inner monologue sounds like outtakes from the narration of The Beast of Yucca Flats.
The point is, by about the halfway mark, you’re ready to just punch James Franco in the face — if you weren’t already. Olds cooks up some interesting visual abstractions, but we’ve already had it up to here with Franco, and Francophrenia only makes matters worse. Maybe the actor’s experiment was Advanced celebrity, but it’s first-year media criticism, and strictly amateur performance art.